Sermon: They Will

February 2, 2020
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:1-12

by Eric Anderson

All of the gospel writers faced a common question: What to say first about the ministry of Jesus after his baptism by John and the gathering of the first disciples? Mark began by describing several of the healings Jesus performed. Luke told of his teaching that the prophecy of Isaiah 61 had been fulfilled in their presence. John opened with the story of the wedding at Cana and the transformation of water into wine.

Even more than Luke, Matthew chose to emphasize the teaching ministry of Jesus. While it seems as if he’d be well along into the work of Jesus by chapter 5, after the baptism in chapter 3 Matthew spent chapter 4 on Jesus’ temptation and then on his genealogy. Chapter 5 really introduces Jesus at work with the three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount. These are the bedrock teachings of Jesus, is Matthew’s message for us. If you want to understand the nature and purpose of Jesus for our lives, in Matthew’s opinion this is where you start.

With a series of blessings.

Karoline Lewis writes at Working Preacher: “You are blessed. You have to hear that on the front end. And note that being blessed is not just for the sake of potential joy, but also for the sake of making it through that which will be difficult. Again, these are Jesus’ first words to his disciples. We need to hear in each and every one of the Beatitudes what’s at stake for Jesus and for his ministry.”

The blessings, however, are also rather burdensome. It is not unusual to regard them as something of a moral instruction, as a direction for living one’s life. In some instances, this makes some sense.

Hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for example, had been raised up as a virtue in religion for centuries by the Hebrew prophets and poets whose work found its way into the Scriptures. Mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking are all great virtues. Persecution for righteousness or for discipleship, however, are not virtues in themselves, though hardship can be the result of doing those good things of living properly and of following Jesus.

Some of the beatitudes, however, aren’t connected to virtue. They’re connected to circumstance. Mourning, for example. We don’t choose to grieve; sadness is the result of losses in our lives. Some say that poverty of spirit is the practice of emptying one’s self so that God’s spirit may enter. It’s not clear whether that is what Jesus meant, however. He might equally have meant the sensation of disconnection from God that the 16th century writer John of the Cross called “the Dark Night of the Soul.” It’s kind of a spiritual depression that John of the Cross described as a cycle of the spiritual life, something to live and work through at various times, but not a thing to seek for itself.

Meekness, too, is ambiguous here in the Beatitudes. Did Jesus mean what the prophet Micah commended to us centuries before, “to walk humbly with your God?” Or did Jesus mean that meekness that bedevils people whose confidence fails them, those who through depression or social ostracism or some other condition not entirely in their control prevents them from effectively speaking for themselves? Did he mean those who meekly accept the abuses of others because they’ve been taught – quite wrongly – that’s all they deserve?

If we’re not careful, Jesus’ lovely poetic declarations of blessing can become instruments of abuse for the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

What connects these blessings, I think, is the way they don’t help you in the day-to-day world all that much. Mercy is often regarded as a weakness to be exploited. Purity of heart will not increase your paycheck. As for hunger and thirsting for righteousness, well: Climate activist Greta Thunberg was invited to address the World Economic Forum on January 21st. Here’s part of what she told them:

“The fact that the U.S.A. is leaving the Paris accord seems to outrage and worry everyone, and it should. But the fact that we’re all about to fail the commitments you signed up for in the Paris Agreement doesn’t seem to bother the people in power even the least.

“Any plan or policy of yours that doesn’t include radical emission cuts at the source, starting today, is completely insufficient for meeting the 1.5-degree or well-below-2-degrees commitments of the Paris Agreement.”

Greta Thunberg

In other words, the short-term interests of the world’s economic elites are driving policies, not the international commitments of the Paris Accords, the long-term consequences of those policies, or the cries for righteousness of Greta Thunberg and those like her around the world.

At some point in our lives, we have been or we will be in circumstances that match one or more of the Beatitudes. We will experience the Dark Night of the Soul. We will grieve. We will yearn for righteousness. It’s also worth asking if we dare place ourselves in the risky places of the merciful, of the pure in heart, of the peacemakers, of the disciples of Jesus.

As Karoline Lewis writes at Working Preacher,

“Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I look the other way?

“Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I assume someone else will?

“Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I explain away my perceived indifference because I don’t want people to think I take sides, because I choose to play it safe?

“Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or keep silent so as not to offend, not to disappoint, in fear of not meeting expectations?”

Karoline Lewis at Working Preacher

In the Beatitudes, Jesus sought to assure his followers that although the world brings the burdens of depressed spirits, mourning, and meekness, God is present with the sufferers. Jesus sought to assure his followers that although the world does not fulfill those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, God will. Jesus sought to assure his followers that although the world does not reward mercy, purity of heart, or even striving for peace, God will. Jesus sought to assure his followers that although the world does not welcome his followers, God will.

God will. They will be blessed.

This is what makes hope such a vital characteristic of faith, and of Christian faith in particular. The problem with the Beatitudes is that they talk of blessing in the present that becomes real in the future. Blessed are, for they will. Blessed are, for they will. They support a hope in their assertion, but they require hope for their acceptance.

Let these words of Jesus be additional supports for your hope: your hope amidst the suffering the world gives you, and your hope amidst the resistance the world presents against your efforts to do good. Embrace the hope to help you through the trials, because that is when Jesus says God is the most present, and the future offers its brightest light.

In our sadness, in our heartbreak, in our desire for a world that resembles of the realm of God: we will be blessed.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

They Will

The changes from the prepared text are adaptations to changing circumstances. At least some of the time.

Photo is of stairs into the Sermon on the Mount Church in I’billin, Israel, by James Emery from Douglasville, United States – Stairs of MEEI church_1098, CC BY 2.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on February 2, 2020

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